A young friend of mine got suckered by the National Report article claiming that a small Texas town had been quarantined due to Ebola (safe link to Snopes). Over at Ace of Spades, Ace had just been bemoaning what he calls the Viral mentality, which seems to me to be a 21st-century hybrid of the rumor mill and mass hysteria. Part of the problem, though, is the mistaken sense that “satire” means making up articles out of whole cloth with just enough detail to be plausible and thereby trigger the Viral mentality’s process. Sometimes the intent is to scare, sometimes to defraud, and sometimes just to give the authors a reason to point and laugh at all the rubes falling for their hoax. But as my friend’s dad pointed out, that’s not satire, and it’s about time we relearned the meaning of the word.
Enter Jonathan Swift, whom Alan Jacobs once proposed as a patron saint against stupidity. Most people know his name from Gulliver’s Travels, which is both a classic and a brilliant satire and probably deserves a post of its own. For a master class in how to write non-fiction satire, however, it’s hard to beat “A Modest Proposal.”
Now, it’s helpful to remember the standard form of a problem-solution essay that you should have learned either in high school or in college freshman comp:
Identify a problem and define and describe it in enough detail to convince the reader that it is a problem that needs to be solved.
Propose a solution, explaining what it is, how it addresses the problem, and why it will work.
Present objections to the solution and answer them fairly.
The problem Swift identifies in “A Modest Proposal” was very real. At the time, the Irish were suffering heavily under English rule, and soul-crushing poverty was rampant in Ireland. But knowing how often straightforward argument had already failed to convince the absentee English landlords to change their ways, Swift turns the form on its ear at the beginning of the solution section and makes a statement so outlandish, so outrageous, so over-the-top that only Hannibal Lecter could approve:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
Yes, that’s the modest proposal: Eat the Irish.
Swift sets forth the merits of the idea in horrifyingly hilarious detail, with plenty of zingers thrown in for good measure. For example, after suggesting probable weights for prime Irish child, he remarks, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” But the cumulative effect, for those who don’t catch the joke early on, is shock and horror and the growing sense that Swift can’t possibly be serious (can he?).
And then, in the reply to objections, Swift springs his trap. “Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients,” he says—and proceeds to list his real recommendations, ranging from taxes on absentee landlords to what William Wilberforce would later call “the reformation of manners.” Swift then closes this section by repeating his admonition that no one should offer such options “till he hath at least some glimpse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.” By pretending to dismiss these ideas as wishful thinking and renewing his recommendation of a more drastic and barbaric solution, Swift prompts the reader to reconsider how quickly the aristocracy had brushed aside truly ethical and humane reforms as folly.
Granted, as Swift surely knew and as Mark Twain would lament 150 years later, it’s nearly impossible to write a satire that someone won’t mistake as being serious. On the one hand, when we first read this essay in high school, I was the only person in the class who laughed immediately instead of being scandalized. On the other hand, I’m quite sure there are so-called progressives, including some who masquerade as ethicists, who would happily use the essay as an instruction manual. Even so, “A Modest Proposal” can remind us that true satire isn’t just mockery or clickbaiting for its own sake. A real satirist has a serious purpose in mind that informs the humor at every turn.